The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

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